Instructor Insights

Fostering Intuition about Social Science

In this section, Professor Ariel White discusses how she makes use of the popular press and imaginative research design scenarios to prepare students to engage with social science as citizens.

A Case for Reading Blogs

Many of the readings in the course are from blogs, op-eds, and magazines. In the short term, assigning readings from the popular press that discuss social science work, or that highlight topics that we’re going to be covering in class, allows me to include more readings in the curriculum without students having to tackle myriad academic papers that they’d never get through in one semester. But it also serves a long-term purpose. Most of my students are not going to be social scientists in their professional lives. They are, however, going to be citizens who read blogs and newspapers and who will grapple with the social science issues we discuss in the course. Assigning articles from the popular press allows them to practicing connecting what they read in their everyday lives to the content of the course.

Imaginative Research Design

One thing I like to do in all of my courses is to foster in students an intuition about social science research. Although none of my courses are research design classes and many of my students won’t conduct social science research, I want them to develop a sense of how the research works so that they can think critically about studies they encounter in the media. When they read about a study, I want them think, How could this study have gone wrong? What can I learn from it? and What are the limits of what I can learn from it?

"It turns out measurement is hard, causal inference is hard, and humans are complicated. It’s fun watching students work through that."
— Ariel White

To help get them to this point, we do a fair amount of thinking through studies together. I ask students to imagine how they might go about answering the kinds of questions the authors are trying to ask. Students get really into it. In small groups they discuss their own answers to the following questions: What’s the perfect experiment to study what the author is exploring? What experiment would you run if you could do anything? And then we get into the gradations: What experiment would you run if you were omnipotent? What experiment would you run if you had endless research funds and no ethical constraints? What if you had a normal research budget and normal human powers? Then we can line up the research we read about in the media against the dream research project. We can think about how the real study diverges from the ideal study, but how it might still capture some of the components we would really want from our dream experiment. It turns out measurement is hard, causal inference is hard, and humans are complicated. It’s fun watching students work through that. 

We always come back to the one question that is the subheading of all my classes: Why is social science so difficult? Particularly at MIT, where students tend to have limited experience with the social sciences, it can be useful to develop a sense of the challenges inherent in the work.

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